Have Bong – Will Travel

It’s been a few years since we last posted a 4/20 piece, and in that time things have certainly been looking brighter for fans of the noble weed, thanks largely to the good citizens of Uruguay, Washington and Colorado.

Marijuana has been on sale in the Centennial State for nearly four months now, and, contrary to the predictions of the prohibitionists, it has yet to descend into a orgy of drug-fuelled madness. Add in the fact that the tills have been ringing pretty much non-stop since the start of January and the pro-legalisation case begins to look unanswerable. Sure, the federal government still officially frowns on the trade, but they have agreed to turn a blind eye to banks doing business with dope dealers, suggesting that they know that legal pot is here to stay.

Or there to stay at least; sadly there is no sign that progressive change in the drug laws will be happening in this country any time soon. I guess I’ll just have to pack my bags and plan a trip to the Mile-High City

It’s Summertime

Readers may have noticed that we’ve gone into our summer recess a little early this year. This is mainly because I am easily distracted by fair-weather pursuits like getting stoned and lying in the park, but also because I have a couple of other projects on the go at the moment that have seduced me away from the virtual world.

So, in lieu of actually writing a proper post, I’ll link to some topics that I would have covered in more depth in the last couple of weeks if I weren’t such a slacker.

In the wake of the Ryan Giggs super injunction fiasco, the attorney general for England and Wales has warned Twitter users that they could face legal action if they breach privacy orders. This may sound like an empty threat, since most Tweeters, myself included, are outside the jurisdiction of the English courts, but I suspect that the authorities may try to restore respect for the law by launching some selective prosecutions, especially now that Twitter have shown a willingness to hand over user details without much resistance. (To be fair to Twitter, their TOS have always made it clear that they will rat you out if the Man comes calling). It’s another reason to believe that social media is perhaps not the unstoppable force for change that its most vocal advocates would have us believe.

On a related subject, the BBC have just finished screening All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, a trio of documentaries by Adam Curtis critically examining the effect that computers and their associated ideology have had on popular consciousness. It’s excellent stuff; if you’re quick you might catch it on the iPlayer, otherwise look out for a repeat.

And finally, as we’ve noted before, proof that our municipalities are woefully unprepared for zombie attack.

The holidays are looming, so that might be your lot until July, unless it rains a lot.

The (Un)Freed Weed

This time last year we were celebrating International Marijuana Day and looking forward to political developments on both sides of the Atlantic that promised a brighter future for aficionados of the noble weed. Sadly, our hopes turned out to be as insubstantial as smoke in the breeze; in the UK the Liberals did end up in government, but have, as yet, failed to rationalise the drug laws, while in California Proposition 19 fell agonisingly short of success.

So, another year of furtiveness beckons. I guess the habit might lose some of its outlaw charm if it was legalised, but a more relaxed approach would reduce the risk of burning out.

Zoned out

We’ve not had much in the way of Second Life content recently; for one reason or another I’ve not had time to log on to the grid in ages, and I’ve just been glancing at the SL blogosphere in passing.

So what’s been happening? Let’s see… The main action seems to have been the Redzone imbroglio (actually an old story, which came to a head this month for some reason). Playing on the characteristic paranoia and narcissism of SL residents, virtual entrepreneur zFire Xue scared people with stories of how their “security” was under threat from some shadowy villains. In the real world Xue would be a political demagogue, but, this being the free-market utopia of Second Life he instead cashed in by selling an expensive technological “solution” to the “problem”. There was a backlash of course, ironically driven by the same paranoia Xue had exploited in the first place, and the Lindens belatedly lumbered into action to ban Xue and his system from the grid, though apparently without closing the loophole he was using to violate residents’ privacy.

Paranoia, narcissism, management incompetence… good to see that not much has changed in Second Life in my absence.

I’m not sure that this episode tells us anything about the psychology of SL residents that we didn’t know already after the events of “Emeraldgate“, but it does add weight the general impression that Linden Lab are not a serious company. Do they have a corporate risk-management department? Do they employ lawyers? Do they read the newspapers? If so, how did they miss that Xue’s system clearly breached EU data protection law, and that the Lab, as platform hosts, were placing themselves at risk of prosecution for failing to safeguard their customers’ information? They may have calculated that the risk was minimal, but, with practically no upside in letting Xue continue to operate, why take a chance? The situation called for decisive action, not months of dithering followed by a half-baked intervention. If I was a potential investor I wouldn’t be particularly impressed.

They’re living on nuts and berries

We haven’t had a good Second Life legal story for a while, so I was glad to see that virtual litigation is alive and well, though this time around the action involves residents suing each other rather than targeting Linden Lab.

The case revolves, as far as I can tell, around an attempt by Ozimals (of virtual bunny fame) to claim sole rights to the whole concept of Second Life pets. Expert opinion, or the SL-blog commentariat at least, seems to believe that the suit has no merit, since the original idea is clearly ripped-off from whoever invented Tamagotchi.

I don’t know about that, but if Ozimals do win their case I’m going to get myself a lawyer and go after them, since I reckon I have a good claim to have invented the Second Life animal-nurturing concept way back in 2007 – here’s the blog post to prove it (and an appropriate soundtrack).

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Accountant Paul Chambers was back in the news this week, after he lost his appeal against a conviction for sending a “menacing message”, specifically an ill-advised tweet in which he humorously threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham. The case has prompted a flurry of indignation around the Twittersphere, with supporters complaining about censorship, and rallying to show solidarity by retweeting Chambers’ offending message.

I’m not sure how to feel about this issue. I’m all for freedom of speech, but I’m finding it hard to get too outraged about this limitation of my liberty to issue prank terroristic threats on the internet.

It reminds me of how, back in the old days, when one was standing in line at the airport, one would occasionally hear some wise-guy “joke” with the security staff with some variant of “Don’t look in there mate, that’s where the bomb is, ha ha”, which would be met with an icy smile, but no further action. Then, after 9/11, these irritating but otherwise harmless jackasses started getting hauled off to jail, and pretty soon that brand of humour disappeared. It’s difficult to say that the world is a poorer place for its passing.

That said, I guess on balance my sympathy is with Chambers, since I think that momentary stupidity, while clearly regrettable, shouldn’t actually be against the law. His faux pas is another illustration of how social media are blurring the distinction between public and private in ways that can have unexpected results. What’s passably funny when recounted to one’s immediate circle may be less amusing when it is relayed to the whole world.

I expect that, as immersion in electronic social networks becomes the norm, people will develop a keener sense of what to share and what to keep to themselves. The law will probably take longer to catch up though, so I’m going to make sure that all my tweets remain thoroughly anodyne, and not susceptible to any misinterpretation whatsoever – certainly nothing that’s too near the bone.

Revolutionary Litigation

Tateru Nino at Massively is reporting that the Lindens are facing yet another lawsuit, this one accusing the Lab of fraudulently representing the nature of property relations in Second Life by suggesting that ownership of virtual land and objects rested with users, when in fact everything on the grid, in the final analysis, belongs to the Lindens (as is made clear in the newly-revised Terms of Service). The plantiffs allege that they have been expropriated without due process, contrary to the provisions of Californian Law, and have hired a lawyer with experience of virtual-world litigation to argue their case.

This case is, in effect, an attempt to impose capitalist social relations on the feudal landscape of Second Life. We have of course been advocating this for a while, though what we had in mind was an indigenous revolution rather than inviting a foreign power (in this case the State of California) to invade and reform the system by force.

O Superman

The JLU saga rumbles on, and has jumped from Second Life into the real world, on the way losing much of its lustre.

I may have exaggerated a little when I implied that the wannabe superheroes were some sort of virtual Freikorps, but they do seem to be doing their best to make themselves look like a thoroughly sinister outfit. Their latest stunt is to try to censor the Herald’s expos√© of the secret JLU database by threatening the paper’s web host with the DMCA. The Herald, to their credit, are not taking this lying down, and have counter-filed a complaint charging JLU supremo Kalel Venkman with intentionally lodging a false DMCA report, which, I understand, is not a trivial offence.

(A side-effect of this process has been to reveal the real-life identity of Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral, who, rather impressively, turns out to be internet legend Mark McCahill.)

The whole story was quite fun when it was confined to the grid and the SL blogosphere, but I suspect it is about to become rather less amusing for the participants now that everyone is getting lawyered-up. A well-connected academic like McCahill can probably look after himself – I’m sure he’ll be able to hit up Lawrence Lessig for some free legal advice – but Venkman, who, the internet tells me, is really a technical writer from Los Angeles, may be having second thoughts about the potentially expensive escalation of hostilities that he has initiated.

Why has Venkman done this? He had a perfectly good role-playing scenario set up, with heroes and villains, intrigue and espionage, skulduggery and back-stabbing, confidential dossiers and secret deals, topped off with open conflict between the forces of good and evil across hundreds of worlds – all the ingredients for a gripping narrative, with Venkman himself right at the centre. He’s trading that for a dull tale of dreary lawyers exchanging dismal arguments in dusty courtrooms, a story that seems likely to end in unhappiness for Venkman and his lycra-clad cohort.

This seems to me to be a case of incomplete immersion, or perhaps over-augmentation; either way Venkman appears to have lost sight of the boundary between the virtual world and the real. The role of “Venkman” has become so important to his self-image that he is unable to see the Herald‘s story for what it is –¬† a chance to build on the mythology he has already established, an opportunity he should welcome – and instead regards it as a threat to his real-life identity, one which must be countered with a real-life action, regardless of the fact that such action risks destroying his existence, both virtual and real.

The story reminds me of cases we’ve covered before – the tale of another virtual superhero, Twixt, and the Stroker v. Linden lawsuit. Both of these involved people acting in ways that made no sense when seen in the context of the virtual world alone, but became more comprehensible when one thought about the interaction between virtual and real identities, particularly the unconscious aspects of the latter.

Is it possible to be a complete immersionist, to live one’s virtual life in total isolation from the conscious and unconscious influences of one’s everyday personality? Would such a thing be desirable? Probably not, for what is interesting to me about living a Second Life, and recording my thoughts about it, is the way that it casts light on corners of my consciousness that I may have been only vaguely aware of. While projection of real-life neuroses into the metaverse may be illuminating, I’m much less convinced that allowing in-world dynamics to leak out and influence one’s external behaviour can be anything other than harmful. This may be a lesson that Kalel Venkman, or at least his mortal alter-ego, is about to learn the hard way.

Because when justice is gone, there’s always force.

The killer awoke before dawn

I’ve been caught up with work and social engagements recently, and so completely missed the latest big Second Life story; Stroker Serpentine’s lawsuit against Linden Lab over the thorny issue of IP rights, and the Lindens’ efforts, or lack thereof, to protect them.

The details of the case, and its merits, have been well covered in the Alphaville Herald and New World Notes, and there’s no shortage of comment around the SL blogosphere (like here, here and here). In such circumstances any opinion I care to offer is bound to be superfluous, as well as being thoroughly uninformative, seeing as how I have no knowledge whatsoever of contract and copyright law as it is applied in the state of California. But what kind of blogger would I be if I let ignorance of the topic or fear of repetition stand in the way of weighing in with my two cents worth?

Everyone agrees that content theft is an issue; Stroker’s case revolves around the question of whether the Lindens are mere providers of the framework in which the criminality occurs, and thus not responsible for it, or if the fact that the Lab profits from copyright infringement by collecting dues from the malefactors makes it part of the evil enterprise. The precedent that is being quoted is the case of Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A., v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc., et al., where the luxury goods maker was awarded $32 million damages against a firm that hosted websites selling counterfeit Vuitton items. The Taser case seems relevant too, as well as the Lab’s previous actions in banning in-world gambling and banking, which presumably stemmed from a realisation that the US Department of Justice was likely to regard hosting illegal activity as an offence in itself.

The Lindens’ defence will probably rest on the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, but they may be on shaky ground there, since any claim to be at one remove from the murky business of SL commerce would be rather undermined by their ownership of XStreet, and their record of assisting aggrieved creatives with DMCA filings is allegedly very poor. There is some speculation that the Second Life Terms of Service, specifically the sections prohibiting residents from suing the Lindens, might be the Lab’s get-out-of-jail card, but it seems unlikely that any court would enforce a contract containing such obviously unfair terms.

All these legal questions are mildly diverting, but what is much more interesting is the underlying psychology. It reminds me of a gritty crime movie, the part where the heist has gone wrong and the thieves have started to fall out. One can only imagine that Stroker’s sex-bed business must have hit the skids before he would pursue the nuclear option of suing the Lindens. I’ve no doubt that having his designs ripped off has at least partially contributed to this, but I suspect that the inherent limitations of the virtual economy (which we’ve previously discussed here and here) have had a more significant impact.

It feels as if there is more to this than mere financial considerations though. What Stroker and other designers want is not just money, but respect, due acknowledgement of their creative talents. Unfortunately, outside of a small subsection of the SL population, being a virtual clothes/hair/whatever producer just doesn’t count for very much, in terms of cash or kudos. This may or may not be unfair (I tend to think it is some way off being the worst injustice in the world), but it’s a fact, and no amount of complaining on the internet or suing Linden Lab is going to change it.

Looking at it more analytically, there also seems to be an Oedipal theme to this lawsuit. By all accounts Stroker was a Joe-the-plumber type before Second Life gave him the chance to reinvent himself as a virtual pornography mogul; it seems ungrateful, to say the least, that he should set in train a process that could theoretically ruin the company that made his good fortune possible. The Lab may have begat Stroker, but he has good reason to think that he is not Philip’s favourite son; the sex business of which Stroker is the most prominent public face is often cited as the biggest threat to the Lindens’ future prosperity. Stroker would not have to be particularly paranoid to see the regulation of adult content on the grid as an attempt to castrate him (figuratively and literally; ridding SL of penises seems to be one of the prime objectives of the new rules). Perhaps the case represents Stroker’s unconscious desire to kill his virtual father before he himself is annihilated by paternal rage.

What would be the most desirable, or least undesirable, outcome of the case? Should Stroker prevail it would surely be a Pyrrhic victory. The suit is a class action, so every frustrated shopkeeper who ever had a texture pilfered would be able to jump on the bandwagon, exposing the Lindens to potentially unlimited liability. Even if this doomsday scenario didn’t come to pass, an adverse judgement would force the Lab to radically change the Second Life retailing landscape, probably by introducing some sort of merchant registration and approval system, shutting out the small scale entrepreneurs who are, everyone says, the lifeblood of SL creativity.

And what if Stroker loses? There has been the usual Atlas Shrugged-style posturing from various bloggers, with talk of how an exodus of talent will leave the rest of us wailing and gnashing our teeth, bereft of prim hair and erotic animations. In reality, of course, little would change, since any designers who did flounce out would be quickly replaced by others with equal skill and a rather more realistic estimation of the value society places on virtual creativity. It would be for the best in the long run, since Second Life can only benefit from a population that is more interested in enriching the collective experience than amassing personal wealth.

So I’m hoping that the case goes to court, and that Stroker loses. I doubt that this will happen though; the Lindens’ corporate lawyers will want to avoid the uncertainty of going to trial, and will push for a settlement, which I suspect is what Stroker has had in mind from the start. Even if they don’t admit liability the Lab will have to introduce more regulation to avoid facing similar actions in the future, and the nature of Second Life will change forever.

Whatever happens, it feels like a chapter, if not the whole book, is drawing to a close.

It’s the end of our elaborate plans…

Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment

Bloomberg are reporting that Taser International Inc. have filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Linden Labs, alleging that the sale of virtual copies of the corporation’s stun-guns in Second Life is damaging the firm’s reputation.

What’s interesting about this is that it is Linden Labs that is being sued, rather than the creators of the knock-off weaponry. Anyone who has ever shopped in SL will know that there are plenty of fake Gucci bags and other designer merchandise in circulation, but until recently there has been little incentive for trademark owners to go after the counterfeiters, since the chances were that they wouldn’t have enough money to pay any substantial damages.

That’s all changed now that Linden Labs has taken over XStreet, and, as Tateru Nino notes in her coverage of the case over at Massively, effectively become the retailer of the dodgy goods. Suddenly the lawyers have a profitable corporation in their sights instead of some penniless hackers, a corporation that will probably settle out of court to avoid the nuisance of ongoing litigation.

This could open up a whole new career path for SL entrepreneurs; virtual patent troll.

Whatever, here at SLS we’re still happy, happy, happy, all the time.